Six years ago, I was waiting tables, struggling with depression, and not sure what to do with my life, when Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi inspired me to learn to meditate. I started meditating but six months later, I hit a wall—an emotional crisis—that flung apart the pieces of my life.
Was meditation to blame?
Was this crisis caused by meditation? At the time it seemed possible for I had begun to experience a feeling of disconnectedness, and other unusual feelings, only after I had started meditating. Afraid to have another emotional catastrophe, I stopped meditating altogether.
During the next 18 months, I often fell into deep moods. Life seemed to have little value or purpose. I believed in Yogananda’s path, but was frightened to do the one thing he seemed to suggest above all others—meditate—for fear it would make my situation worse.
At this time, at age 20, I was living in the greater Seattle area, sharing a home with my parents and younger brother, delivering pizza, and wasting most of the rest of my time with “fillers” and distractions. Then, one morning—April 22, 2003—I woke up with an intense, even desperate, desire for God.
Too desperate to give up
I consider this the greatest miracle of my life. It changed everything. That same morning I tried to meditate and again experienced a disconnected feeling, but I was now too desperate to give up.
Searching for help, I found the main Ananda website and wrote the person in charge of meditation support. Because I lived near Seattle, he suggested that I contact Terry McGilloway, one of the spiritual directors at Ananda Seattle.
Meeting Terry turned things around. He was able to guide me to meditate in ways that worked. One of his first suggestions was that I try meditating with open eyes, focusing on some object slightly above the “horizon line.” I was surprised to find that this worked marvelously.
A dramatic difference in my attitudes
Before too long, I was able to meditate without trouble—gradually, using closed eyes. I soon noticed a dramatic difference in my attitudes—an increased ability to be happy, and to appreciate life. Years of depression began to evaporate in the light of meditation.
I’m still not clear what all the issues were. In part, I believe my attitudes about meditation needed correcting. At least some of my disconnected feeling came from the attitude: “When I meditate, I am detaching myself from the world.” A more helpful understanding might have been: “When I meditate, I am expanding myself to become the world, and everything in it.”
Meditation becomes enjoyable
After participating in the Ananda Seattle community for a year and a half, I moved to Ananda Village in February 2005. Seven months later, I moved to the Ananda Meditation Retreat as part of Ananda’s new monastery. Living in a place where people come to seclude, and where silence is often practiced, I came to appreciate meditation in a new way.
I was now meditating not only because it would help me find God, but also because I enjoyed it. It became a fulfilling act, in and of itself.
The challenge of ongoing “moods”
I do not go through depression like I used to, but I still sometimes face difficulties with moods. I would have once called this depression, but “moods” implies a temporary state, which is what they’ve become. Living closely with other devotees makes it impossible to withdraw from people the way I used to.
For example, I am often asked how I am, and if I mention my difficulty, I sometimes receive helpful advice. More than once I have been saved from weeks or months of sorrow by a few kind words, or simply by being in a friend’s presence.
Over time, I have become more committed to meeting my moods “at the crest.” Swami Kriyananda has said that the highest gains come when we raise our energy to meet our spiritual tests as soon as we see them coming. This is called meeting them “at the crest.” Applied to meditation, it includes, among other things, spending the first several minutes of meditation concentrating with extra intensity.
To meet my moods at the crest, I had a double challenge. I not only needed to raise my energy level, but I also had to fight the mood’s tendency to pull my energy down.
A six-week test
The most difficult test I had was with a lengthy (six-week) mood in the spring of 2006. Right at the outset, I sprained my ankle. I received a lot of kindness and sympathy, but because of the mood, I could barely muster up enough positive energy to be grateful for the support! Thankfully, Nitai Deranja, head monk and longtime Ananda member, and I had a helpful talk during that time.
On spiritual path, he said, we all need “different gears.” He explained that sometimes it’s like you’re running downhill and everything is wonderful. Other times it’s hard even to get up in the morning. He encouraged me strongly to continue to make the effort to meditate. “Otherwise,” he said, “if you stop, life will become very difficult.”
In fact, I did cut back on meditation. Most things had become difficult, or even painful, to do, and meditation was very near the top of the list. Even so, my habit of going to morning meditations was strong enough that I was able to get to most of them. Importantly, I still always meditated at least twice a day.
Only two things are needed
During that same talk, Nitai said something else that was very encouraging. He said that to find God, you need only two things: “aspiration and perseverance.”
“Well,” I thought. “Surely I can put one foot in front of the other. Nothing else is even needed!”
One evening a few weeks later, I was meditating in the Meditation Retreat temple. Toward the end of the meditation, I felt a deep joy wash over me, as though I had been safely lifted from dark waters onto a calmly floating raft. The emotional suffering wasn’t gone, but I didn’t mind. The joy was more powerful.
God had taken care of me
The mood faded after about six weeks of suffering. At the time I thought I had done very poorly in meeting it at the crest. But six weeks is a drop in the bucket compared to the years I had preciously spent in depression. This time, with the help of good friends and a good environment, I had generated enough energy to draw God’s grace and break the mood in less than two months.
This was my first real experience of being sustained by a higher power during severe testing. God had taken care of me; I wasn’t fighting life’s battles alone. And because I had maintained my meditation practice, the return to “normal life” was like hitting the ground running.
Immediately afterwards, there was another challenge to face, not a mood but a test that seemed more dangerous. A friend encouraged me to meet it at the crest; this time there was no mood pulling my energy down and I was able to do it. As I raised my level of energy, I found that there was an energy that reached down to help me.
Overcoming your difficulties before they fully reveal themselves gives one a tangible sense of inner freedom. Increasingly, in moments of trial, I have come to rely more and more on God.
Together these tests marked a turning point, after which I was less afraid and more ready to give myself to God, even in small struggles. Like King Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, God can pull victory and joy from the rocky path of any spiritual test.
Meditation changes the brain
A few months later, I heard a talk by Peter Van Houten, a physician at Ananda Village who writes and lectures extensively on the brain. He explained that concentrating at the point between the eyebrows in meditation can eliminate one of the main causes of depression–low serotonin levels in the pre-frontal lobes, located directly beneath that point.
Meditating at that point gradually brings serotonin levels back to normal. All of Yogananda’s meditation techniques involve concentrating at the point between the eyebrows.
My life has changed completely because of meditation. Surprising, then, that I had thought meditation would make life worse; it has made it much, much better. I had once thought it a cause of troubles, but now I am finding it’s a solution.